Guest post by Laura Stoltzfus-Brown
On November 20th, Marvel fans will be graced with the release of a new title: Jessica Jones. The Netflix-exclusive show will feature the super-powered-Jones, who is the first mediated female superhero to get her own visual adaptation among Marvel’s explosion of films, shows, and games. With mixed expectations of how Marvel will handle a female lead after fan upset in Avengers: Age of Ultron, two thoughts are at the front of my mind: just because a piece of media is about a strong female character, that does not make it feminist; and, media not starring a female lead can still be feminist. The latter is demonstrated mostly well in that other Marvel Netflix series: Daredevil.
Marvel’s show Daredevil is interesting, diverse, and may contain some of its most progressive depictions of female characters yet––Madame Gao, Claire Temple, Karen Page, Ms. Cardenas, Vanessa Mariana, even Marci Stahl––there are many different types of women with their own motivations, interests, and personalities. I would like to focus on Karen Page as she is presented as part of the triad of Nelson & Murdock; and because her character is so drastically different from the heroin-riddled, problematically fridged girlfriend of the original comic. As someone who cannot separate my academic interests from my personal ones, I view Daredevil in a warm, critical light––Karen Page is by no means perfect, but is (I hope) representative of the changing portrayals of female characters.
When we first meet Karen Page, she is covered in blood, curled over a body with knife in hand. As police officers arrest her, she repeatedly yells, “This wasn’t me!” Nelson & Murdock enter the scene to listen to her case, and one of the first comments regarding her is that of Foggy Nelson, asking the officers to “uncuff the 110-lb woman.” Moments later, Matt Murdock registers surprise upon finding out Karen Page asked a male coworker for a drink! At this point, it may seem easy to dismiss the male protagonists as being stuck on traditional gender norms––I almost stopped watching the show but my inner fangirl won out; By the end, I’m glad she did.
As the first episode continues, Karen lies to Matt Murdock about making a copy of the suspicious Union Allied material that got her coworker killed, stating her lack of intelligence. She then returns to her apartment to retrieve the file she did have the intelligence to copy, and is attacked, with Daredevil coming to a timely rescue. Although the damsel-in-distress trope is played out in full here, it’s what happens afterwards I find truly refreshing: we are presented with a woman who has PTSD and is attempting to deal with it, but takes her next actions in to her own hands. Yes, other ‘normal’ women in the MCU also experience terror––Pepper Potts, Jane Foster, Darcy Lewis––but we see Karen struggling with the after-effects, unable to shrug it off and comfortably rely on a constant protector. Instead, Karen begins an investigation into what happened to her, into Union Allied Construction and their shady dealings. She meets up with journalist Ben Urich, stating her case and asking for his assistance.
Even though she understands the risks, Karen is determined to find answers and bring down those who are unethical, just as Matt Murdock does using his Daredevil handle. The two are working toward the same end goals, but approaching it in vastly different ways. Both, by the light of day, work for a law firm that is trying to untangle Hell’s Kitchen using the legal system; by night, Karen runs around the city connecting dots and talking with people; Matt does the same through physical intimidation. Their journeys parallel, crossing over the same points, although it is through Karen’s hard work that Ben and Matt eventually meet, and that Matt is able to find out more about Fisk.
Many try to discourage Karen from continuing her research, but she never manages to be a silent, submissive female. Her actions place her in danger, which is mostly handled well by the show. For example, her kidnapping at the hands of Wesley was not done to lure out the male protagonists, rather, it was the result of her poking around into Wilson Fisk’s background. While understandably upset, Karen remains calm, refusing to be cowed by Wesley’s job offer and threats, and ultimately uses his gun against him. No one needs to rescue her; she can do so herself. In an interview with TVGuide, Deborah Ann Woll, who plays Karen Page, stated: “If the bad guy kidnaps you, clearly because he knows the good guy likes you, then you’re a damsel in distress. But if you actively go searching for the bad guy and he kidnaps you to stop you from getting him, then you’re a hero.” As such, Karen Page is more than the familiar girlfriend/secretary/assistant––she is heroic.
Over and over again, Karen proves to be a character of complex emotion and action. Unlike the Marvel films, Karen is not the sole female in the cast and thus does not have to act as a representative of all women. She is flawed, doesn’t always think through her actions, and makes mistakes like a regular human. She is intelligent, clever, and curious; a grown-up Nancy Drew might be an apt comparison. She shines during interpersonal communication and acts as an emotional center; even more, Karen is integral to the success of Nelson & Murdock.
Despite this, the show’s treatment of her is lacking at times, and certain character actions don’t make sense to me. The aspects of Karen Page with which I am unhappy can be debated and discussed, which is in and of itself a sign of moving forward.
The first is that I was struck by Matt Murdock’s brand of chivalry and how his words and actions diminished Karen: his surprise she asked a man for a drink; suggesting she wait outside the room containing Ms. Cardenas’ dead body; telling Karen he was going to protect her and keep her safe; getting upset at Karen’s impulsive actions despite his own rash decisions. As Matt is the eponymous protagonist, we as the audience are supposed to agree with him and his care for, as Fisk said, “women and children.” However, his care can be patronizing, questioning the ability of women to handle difficult situations––even though Karen gives him vital information, emotionally supports him, and is integral to the completion of their investigation. It gets tiring to see male characters questioning the ability of their female counterparts; this happens all too often in reality and perpetuates the idea that undermining female agency is appropriate.
The second drawback is the use of costume design to physically hobble Karen when placed in danger. While there is nothing “bad” about traditional feminine wear, the insistence for Karen to perform her gender exclusively in heels, skirts, and dresses does not make sense for the character. It does not rationally follow for Karen, who knows she is being targeted, to traipse around dangerous areas of the city at night without at least packing a pair of sensible flats. As Mike Madrid stated in The Supergirls: Fashion, Feminism, Fantasy, and the History of Comic Book Heroines: “Many women complain about the inequity in our society that says a man can wear sensible shoes and a suit to look appropriate for the professional world, while a woman is expected to wear a skirt and high heels. There is an implication that a women must…go the extra length to make herself ‘attractive’ by society’s standards.” An interview with costume designer Stephanie Maslansky by Fashionista underscores this point, as she wanted to give Karen “a sexuality and sensuality…All she knows about New York is what she’s seen in glamorous fashion magazines…so she dresses in accordance to those thoughts: retro, slim skirts, tighter fitting tops and slim dresses.” Thus, Karen’s very femininity becomes a physical hurdle––she is portrayed as being capable, but not physically so; she carries Mace on a key-chain but has trouble defending herself.
This physical frailty allows both Daredevil and Foggy Nelson to save her, excusing the fact that both men were following her because they were doing so in her best interest. Karen and Matt make fun of Foggy’s baseball abilities, yet Foggy is able to knock a man unconscious with a perfectly-thrown fastball. Karen, on the other hand, seems to lack any kind of strength or knowledge of self-defense––having men protect her simultaneously makes them heroic and her powerless. It ignores the larger questions of whether it is heroic to follow a female without her knowledge because you deem her behavior suspicious; instead, it “oversimplifies the complex interlocking forms of oppression to which women are subjected.”
Although the treatment of Karen Page is imperfect, she is the kind of female character I would like to see more of in the Marvel Cinematic Universe: mature, smart, tenacious; able to handle tough situations as well as, or better than, her male counterparts. I also understand that you can greatly enjoy something but still critique it––changes in writing and production ought to occur to make this universe more female-friendly. When a mostly male group creates and writes a show, female characters tend to be unrealistic. Only one female, Ruth Fletcher, wrote for the show; all of the directors were male, as were the majority of the production crew. More women involved with every step of production would open up conversation about what female characters would and would not do––yes, costume designer Stephanie Maslansky is a female, but having even more women on staff could encourage questions about heels, casual misogyny, or female agency. More female characters, especially women of color, to balance out the cast and allow for even greater diversity of personality would also help. Next season, Elodie Yung will be playing Elektra, which is a step in the right direction. The new showrunners are both males, but hopefully showrunner Doug Petrie, who wrote for Buffy the Vampire Slayer, will continue the trend of writing more human, more empowered women. In the words of Jennifer K. Stuller’s Ink-Stained Amazons and Cinematic Warriors: Superwomen in Modern Mythology, “We’re shown too many images of us as beauty queens, femme fatales, vixens, girlfriends, mothers, and damsels in need of rescuing. We can be those things, but we can also be more.”
Laura Stoltzfus-Brown is a writer and researcher whose work explores the feminist political economy of media, video games and comic books. She tweets about injustice and geeky stuff at @LStoltzfusBrown.